Theater

The Audience Stacks Its Deck in Queen Helen Mirren’s Favor

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Are you a closet monarchist? Do you harbor nostalgia for absolute leaders from unimpeachable family trees? If so, Peter Morgan’s The Audience — starring the theatrically royal Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II — might be for you. If not, its pleasures are more dubious.

The titular “audience” is a traditional tête-à-tête, held weekly between the English monarch and the prime minister du jour. Morgan wends back and forth in time, placing Mirren — er, Elizabeth — opposite leaders from across the span of her reign. She learns queenly protocol from Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews), spars with Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey), and kicks back with Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) in her humble Scottish castle. Mirren deftly changes wigs and age-appropriate royal attire, portraying with sensitivity and wit the evolution of a wise, compassionate national leader.

And this is kind of the problem. Morgan presents the prime ministers as a parade of power-hungry buffoons, while Elizabeth, above the fray of electoral politics, comes across more moral and more populist than the lot. Because her role is strictly advisory, her stances lack nasty real-world consequences, and the drama (if there is any) starts to seem like a stacked deck, calling back to the glory days of monarchical rule. (When were those, again?) Then again, unlike the real deal, this audience isn’t compulsory.